9 Cool College Start-ups
GXStudios, Yale UniversityGreen Mobile, University of MissouriZW Enterprises, Indiana UniversityUniversity of California, BerkeleyGive Water, University of PennsylvaniaLingt Language, Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyThe Bearon, University of MichiganCollege Weekenders, University of Southern CaliforniaSimply Splendid Donuts, University of Houston
More than 40,000 college students who have become addicted to GoCrossCampus, or GXC—an online game developed by a group of current and former students at Yale. The rules are similar to those of the classic board game Risk: Teams of players from various schools battle for territory on a map that reflects real campuses, right down to landmarks such as dorms and dining halls.
Founders Matthew Brimer, a Yale senior, and 2008 grads Brad Hargreaves, Sean Mehra, and Jeffrey Reitman launched the parent company, GXStudios, in 2007 (that's the staff at a meeting, above). They believe they are pioneering a new kind of interactive formula, something they call team-based social gaming. The start-up has raised $1 million in venture capital, and now has a Manhattan office with about a dozen employees. "It's one of those things I never would've predicted when I came to Yale," says Brimer, a sleep-deprived sociology major who serves as chief marketing officer "If someone would've told me that, when I graduate, I'd go to work for the start-up company I founded and am working for already part time, I'm not sure I would've believed it." —Andrew Bartholomew, Yale class of '09
Brian Laoruangroch's eBay hobby has grown into a business with $500,000 a year in revenue. Starting in 2004, the University of Missouri student realized he could buy old mobile phones and resell them for a profit. He built his own website to market refurbished phones and then opened a kiosk in a local mall. Last summer, Laoruangroch decided the business, Green Mobile, was large enough to support a retail storefront. He borrowed money from his parents and then landed a $50,000 bank loan backed by the Small Business Administration. Along the way, he pumped money into Green Mobile by doing side work as an actor and model in Kansas City. He drew on that acting experience to make a series of kitschy TV commercials, which feature Green Mobile Man, a superhero who goes around saving people money. When he punches villains, a big "KA-POW" appears on the screen. "I knew that we had to do something really outlandish that would last in people's minds," he says. —Jacob Stokes, Missouri class of '09
Unable to find an energy drink that was made from natural ingredients and did not produce the crash effect common with sugary or highly caffeinated beverages, Zac Workman decided to make his own. Working with a fruit-punch recipe that has been in his family for years, the Indiana University junior came up with a drink that tasted good and satisfied the necessary dietary requirements. He and his family put up $200,000 in start-up capital to launch the drink, named Punch last year. Three Anheuser-Busch distributors picked up the product, and sales are on track to reach $1 million in 2009.
Running a business on campus has been surprisingly easy. "People would think it would be difficult to balance class and a business, but I'm learning more now than I ever have in the classroom," says Workman, a finance and entrepreneurship major. "Because now, I'm sitting in class learning business strategies meant to be applied in the professional world, but I actually get to do that when I go home." —Allie Townsend, Indiana class of '09
At the tender age of 14, Jessica Mah sold her first company, which rented server space to small businesses, at a marginal profit. She then set up jessicamah.com and began to blog about business and technology from a young person's perspective. Last fall, Mah, now a Berkeley junior, came up with the idea for a new venture, which she began to chronicle on the site. "All of us were looking for internships, and I had no clue where to start," Mah says. "This is how business ideas begin: You want to do something, and you run into problems." Equal parts Craigslist and Mediabistro, the new site, InternshipIN, helps students identify high-quality internships—i.e., internships that do not involve "getting coffee and making copies," Mah says. Much of the initial traffic has come through a partnership with SimplyHired, a job search engine. Eventually, Mah hopes to begin charging employers a fee to post listings on the site. —Deepti Arora, Berkeley class of '11
The summer before entering college, Ben Lewis, who describes himself as "the 10-year-old who read The Wall Street Journal," borrowed warehouse space at a friend's dad's office and started selling bottles of Give Water from the trunk of his car. He persuaded a few delis and grocery stores in his hometown, Pittsburgh, to stock the product. Give caught the eyes of distributors, who picked up the product along the East Coast, in Canada, and in the Midwest. The bottled-water brand donates a portion of each sale to a local charity. Customers can choose where their donation goes based on the color of the label of the bottle they buy--a green label will fund environmental causes, for example, while buying a bottle with a pink label will send money to breast-cancer research. In the 18 months since its debut, Give has donated more than $50,000, which suggests retail sales of about $650,000. Whole Foods is now distributing the product in stores on both coasts, and Lewis thinks Give will have national reach by 2010. He hopes someday to donate $1 million a year to charity. —Beth Sussman, Penn class of '09
Learning a new language can be tough, as MIT students Justin Cannon and Chris Varenhorst (above) discovered as they prepared to study abroad in China. The students, along with classmate and co-founder Scot Frank, found that their professors had little problem teaching the written language but, with 30 to 40 students in a class, teaching proper pronunciation was difficult. To address the problem, one of Frank's teachers created digital audio recordings that featured prompts that could be rerecorded by students and returned to the professor via e-mail. But the process was tricky and time-consuming and involved downloading special software. There had to be a better way, the students thought. So they developed a tool for teaching foreign languages. Unlike other software on the market, which focuses on self-learning, theirs would be designed for use in the classroom. The result is Lingt Editor, an application that lets teachers create custom assignments with audio, images, text, and video. It also includes a tool that allows a student to record and submit audio of himself or herself directly through a Web browser. A pilot program conducted with teachers in several charter schools and the language classrooms at MIT helped to improve and refine the product. Now, a deal to test the technology in high schools in Kansas City, Missouri, is in the works. —Benjamin P. Gleitzman, MIT class of '09
Last year, Caroline Rooney launched The Bearon, an upbeat T-shirt line sold primarily through her own website and independent sales reps on six other college campuses, including the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Syracuse University, and Northwestern. The 19-year-old is donating 20 percent of the profit from every shirt sold to three charities: UNICEF, the Alzheimer's Foundation, and New York City's Public Art Fund. For marketing, she maintains a page on Facebook, holds events with campus Greek organizations, and often speaks at assemblies and club meetings. She also maintains a blog on her website, thebearon.com, on which she promotes her favorite artists and photographers, and posts photographs of customers wearing her shirts in cities around the world. "It's getting to the point where I don't recognize some of the people who are sending in orders, calling in questions, or walking around campus wearing the shirts," Rooney says. "That's when you know the word of mouth has gone to the next level, and that's really exciting."—Caitlin Brody, Michigan class of '09
Like many of his classmates, University of Southern California senior David Wachtel is crazy about college football and will follow the Trojans nearly anywhere. The only thing that dampens his enthusiasm for away games is the cost. He saw students paying exorbitant amounts of money for, say, a trip from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area for the Stanford game, and he knew he could get a better price if he put together a group. In the fall of 2007, he put up fliers around campus advertising a package deal.
"I had 100 spots originally," he says, "and those 100 spots sold out in under two weeks. Then I had a wait list that was 50 people long, so I called the hotel back." By the time the caravan of buses Wachtel had assembled pulled off USC's campus and began to head north, he had arranged travel for 216 customers and booked $50,000 in revenue. A business, College Weekenders, was born.
This fall, Wachtel plans to take the business to other campuses and orchestrate weekend trips for students at UCLA and UC Berkeley, and possibly Arizona State University. If he gets the level of participation at those schools that he has enjoyed at USC, the company could reach $300,000 in revenue. Wachtel's teachers have taken note. "It's a great business model," says Patrick Henry, a professor at USC's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. —Keaton Gray, USC class of '11
Some college students schedule classes so they can sleep in as late as possible, but not Danny Klam. The University of Houston senior, who is double-majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing, often begins his day at 3 a.m., opening one of the three Simply Splendid Donuts and Ice Cream stores he owns The chain employs a staff of 12. Last year, it grossed $750,000 and, this year, revenue is on track to top $1.2 million. "The hours are crazy," Klam says. "You just have to make time and get your priorities straight."
To learn more about running the business, Klam took courses at the University of Houston's Wolff Entrepreneurship Center. In gratitude for the advice and support he received there, Klam recently endowed a scholarship. As for Simply Splendid Donuts, Klam plans an ambitious expansion just as soon as he graduates. "We can compete with Dunkin' Donuts," he says, "and I see other local shops as something to acquire."
—Zaneta Loh, Houston class of '09